Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Women and Accidental Burns

A common cause of injury and death in women of 18th and early 19th-century America was fire, not surprisingly since cooking was done at an open hearth, where a stray spark, unnoticed, could catch and send a woman's dress up in flames. But even a lady, who never did kitchen work, was in danger as well, from the fireplaces throughout the house.

The Port Folio, Rebecca's favorite periodical, stated in 1802 that the death-by-fire rate had worsened "since the introduction of light clothing. Ladies are forced to a nearer enjoyment of the fire, and the thin muslin transparency is in a blaze in a moment" (May 29, 1802, p. 166). Perhaps this is what had happened to Rebecca's 19-year-old cousin Becky Cohen. In February of the same year. as she stood by her bedroom fireplace her dress caught fire. Becky panicked and ran downstairs. Rebecca commented that this was the worst course to take, showing that young women were knowledgeable, at least theoretically, about what not to do in such an emergency. Becky Cohen's left side and arm had been "dreadfully burned" by the time the fire was put out.

All nursing was done by the women of the family. Becky was in such agony that her cousins and aunt joined her mother and sisters in shifts, giving her some relief with cold compresses. A week later Becky still could not turn over and continued to need the round-the-clock care of her female relatives, including the Gratz sisters.

The Gratz's and their relatives had an often misplaced faith in doctors, but in this case their readiness to accept medical advice brought them some relief. Despite her "extreme modesty" Becky Cohen submitted to the doctor's dressing her side, something that many women of the time would not have endured nor most families permitted. Through his examination of her burns, the doctor was able to recognize when the danger of infection had passed. He eased the anxieties of the family by assuring them about two weeks after the accident that Becky was on the road to recovery. She lived until 1840.

The first cook stoves were manufactured in the 1820's and quickly spread from urban areas to farms and villages. Women were no longer at risk from an open fire in their kitchens although they could still sustain serious burns from the hot metal of the stove.

(The letters quoted here are in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress. For more about women's clothing, see my July and August posts on fashion in 1800. Information on cook stoves is derived from Jack Larkin's fascinating The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, 1988.)

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